This article is part of a series covering the releases of the 2021 London Film Festival; earlier entries in this series are available on the site.
For those who’ve been participating in the London Film Festival, been reading along with these articles or are just familiar with the usual festival fare, they might sympathise with the fact I’ve grown a little burned out with low budget slow cinema. The worst offender I’ve seen is coming later on in this article, but films like Clara Sola, Nudo Mixteco, Brother’s Keeper, Drive My Car and Azor, though all admirable in their way, can get a bit wearing one after the other. Hour upon hour of movies running through the same playbook of long static shots, minimal score and naturalistic performances day after day can be taxing, even if you have more tolerance for that kind of film than I do. To be clear, some of my favourite movies fit that description, but variety is the spice of life and despite not even being particularly good, I can hardly overstate what a breath of fresh air a movie like Hinterland was. After days of subtlety, a hyper-stylised, gory, over the top and very dumb piece of pulp period gothica was exactly what the doctor ordered.
Hinterland, a.k.a. Homefront was a welcome reminder that movies made purely for entertainment still exist outside of the Hollywood factory. That’s not to dismiss the themes of The Counterfeiters director Stefan Ruzowitzky’s postwar serial killer thriller; just to say that they’re there as seasoning to deepen the flavour because good junk food is never bland. Set in Vienna in 1920, the film follows Captain Peter Perg (Murathan Muslu) as he returns from a Russian prison camp to find the city he policed before the war not only wholly transformed but stalked by a serial killer picking off his campmates in gruesome fashion, prompting him to return to the force before the vengeful torturer’s net closes on him.
The first thing that should be noted about Hinterland are the sets. Almost the entire film was shot on a green screen, with the hyper-real backdrops designed to emulate the canted angles of the expressionist style of the era. This is an aesthetic choice that I personally think they could’ve gone further with. At present, it’s a shallow affectation that looks interesting but may have been more of a functional one than an aesthetic one. It might have been budgetary or possibly down to the pandemic restricting the scope of the production. Either way, I’d call it a successful technique, if perhaps an under-utilised one, looking more Guy Ritchie‘s Sherlock Holmes than Robert Weine. Ruzowitzky’s direction isn’t awful, but this is the kind of visually striking and gleefully macabre movie Guillermo del Toro would’ve absolutely slayed.
The film relishes its portrait of Vienna as a den of vice and iniquity. There’s hints of a new bohemian start, but Ruzowitzky sees through it to the toxic sludge of poverty, antisemitism and fascism underneath. Even the counterculture revolutionaries of the era were proven fools as their ideology of communism was perverted into just another kind of fascism, although the film’s attitudes towards its homosexual characters still feels dated in all the wrong ways.
There’s some very blunt social comment that adds that seasoning: upon arrival in the city, Perg and his fellows are immediately discharged and handed the address of a local homeless shelter, and when he returns home, he finds his wife has moved to the country and possibly moved on from him as well, setting the stage for him to regain his manhood by settling the ghosts of his past. The film follows its serial killer paces fairly predictably, though the period setting is a nice change-up and there’s a good twist I didn’t see coming, though admittedly I’m generally pretty bad at guessing twists ahead of time. It’s nothing too special by most standards, but it’s a satisfying piece of pulp fiction and a rejuvenating break from the monotony of ‘respectable’ fare.
Leave No Traces
Speaking of respectable movies, we’ve got Leave No Traces, not to be confused with Debra Granik’s 2018 masterpiece Leave No Trace. This is a Polish historical drama following the aftermath of the murder of Grzegorz Przemyk, an 18-year-old activist beaten to death in police custody in 1983. Grzegorz (Mateusz Gorski) and his best friend Jerzy (Tomasz Zietek) were hauled in off the street for not displaying their I.D.s when randomly stopped. Grzegorz was savagely beaten by the arresting officers and he died soon after. His family of activists succeed in getting his story to the foreign press and an investigation into his death is called for, one which the ministry obstructs at every turn, trying to discredit Jerzy’s testimony and character, inventing frivolous charges against him and his family to pressure him into changing his statement, and framing the ambulance crew for the murder.
All this unfolds over almost three hours of screentime, digging into every excruciating and sickening detail of the case. It’s a gruelling watch and not just because of the endless injustices it portrays. A lengthy, one-note affair, the film feels overstuffed with details that swell its runtime, seemingly averse to the risk of leaving the audience wanting more. It’s an important story and a more dynamic editor and director partnership might have made a more compelling picture of events. The film does build to an electrifying courtroom scene where Jerzy finally gives his evidence and director Jan Matuszynski’s naturalist reserve begins to pay off, but it still feels less like the culmination of this movie and more like a glimpse of the more arresting film we might have gotten. If Guillermo del Toro is the more mainstream director who would’ve done Hinterland one better, I could easily imagine David Fincher making a fantastic film here.
There’s just not enough nuance in the picture to justify taking this much time to tell it. There’s no two sides here, no justification or debate; it’s all just rotten to the core and the film lets it stew too long. There are some compelling performances, particularly from Sandra Korzeniak as Grzegorz’s activist mother Barbara Sadowska, and there’s some poignancy in Jerzy’s loyal party member father, blindly supporting a system that he doesn’t realise wants nothing more than to crush his son. The film does emerge as a fierce and indomitable account of injustice and the truest horrors of all, but it drags its feet too much in the telling of it, becoming tiresome and long-winded. A more efficient film could have said absolutely everything this film does in half the time, and such films have already been made.
The prize for the most testing film of the day, though, sadly goes to Faya Dayi, Jessica Beshir’s black and white art-house documentary about a family of Ethiopian Khat farmers. Before I go further, I must insist that as un-promising as that description may sound, I want to say that Honeyland, a documentary about a Macedonian beekeeper, was my favourite film of 2019. Compelling stories can be told in any context and there’s no reason a film like this couldn’t have been incredible. The film is certainly handsome enough that I’ve no doubt a great number of viewers will be captivated by its languid mysticism, something that even I felt the effects of periodically, but I must equally insist that the sad truth is that this film demands far, far more patience than 99% of audiences will be able to offer it. I’d describe the film as slow, but that would imply that it was going somewhere.
The film centres mostly on a single-family and their personal dramas, following the Khat trade from farm to market: the older brother has left home to find work in the city processing the Khat for sale; the father is a farmworker who has developed a harmful Khat dependency; women of the family lament the loss of their husbands, imprisoned for protesting against the oppression the Oromo people have suffered under successive regimes, all while the youngest son remains lost and alone, wishing to follow in his older brother’s footsteps.
That all sounds like quite enough emotion to hang a narrative on, but the film takes its time to such an exhausting degree that each of these things are only acknowledged in as much detail as I have just done. None of these ideas builds upon or develops one another, none of these questions are ever resolved, and the film never comes to any conclusion. The film is sprawling, messy and lacking in focus, mentioning themes like the yearning for home and for loved ones, but never really allowing the viewer to engage with them on any meaningful level.
The closest thing it has to a narrative is in the form of a parable about the origins of Khat and the search for immortality, told at intervals throughout the film, mixing elements of fable, myth and folklore. This culminates in somewhat of a satisfying manner that makes some meaning out of all the fly on the wall footage the film inundates the viewer with. Mythically, Khat’s stimulant effect is the glimpsing of immortality, which this film ties to cinema and to art, and that’s what Beshir is doing, giving her subjects a glimpse of immortality, by recording them with her camera. That’s all very well, but two hours of black and white footage of East African villagers going about their day, with no story, often in slow motion, was a long, long road to get there. It looks very pretty—one would expect nothing less when former cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld is involved on the production end—but it provides little information, emotion or entertainment for the time investment.